‘Downton Abbey’ recap: “Episode Four”

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Robert and Cora welcome Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes…er, Mrs. Carson..ugh, what do we call her now?

ITV - Downton Abbey - Carson and Mrs HughesIt seems like Downton Abbey has settled into a comfortable, if dull groove for its last few episodes. Despite all of the talk of changes coming, the characters and story lines seem pretty static. Though the Granthams are having to face a “new world” of social mobility, they still march around in their finery, dictating the lives of those underneath them. Unlike, say, Parks and Recreation, which went out with a huge bang, Downton Abbey feels like it’s burning off the rest of the remaining episodes – and very little of it is all that interesting.

The whole Isobel vs. Violet hospital flap feels like a lot of nothing. Though Violet’s interest in the argument proves to be a bit purer than originally thought (she does have some sincere concern for local autonomy over lands), but the stakes feel so low and petty, that it feels as if Julian Fellowes couldn’t care less about who is handed the reigns over the hospital, either. Obviously, part of this fight is Violet’s attempt to remain in control. The only good thing to come out of the disappointing Shirley MacLaine appearances is that Violet’s secretly acknowledging (at least to herself) that her time as a relevant matriarch is passing. She still manages to convince those around her with her intimidation tactics, and they work – but she’s wasting her gifts on something so seemingly pedestrian, that part of me asks, “Who cares?” whenever she marches in with a bee in her expensive bonnet.

Gwen, the former housemaid of Downton returns, in what could’ve been a fantastic return, but instead ended up feeling a little, meh…. None of this is Rose Leslie’s fault – she’s great in the episode, in the limited amount of time she’s given. Gwen is now married and working for a women’s college. It’s a neat way to cap Gwen’s character, who did her best to “better herself,” and is now returning the favor by helping other women. And when Barrows tries to embarrass her by pointing out that she’s a former maid, the thing backfires, as everyone is happy for Gwen. During dinner, Gwen is subject to some major condescension from everyone around the table – and instead of being able to just be, Gwen is put in a position in which she firstly must genuflect to the memory of Lady Sybil, and then to reassure everyone at the table that working at Downton was great, and her life now is at best, a lateral move.

Gwen’s return sort-of crosses with Daisy’s growing unrest as a cook. The problem is Daisy’s also a bit of a dumdum and a hothead. Unlike Gwen, Daisy’s life has remained in the kitchen, and she’s resentful of her lot in life, as well as the societal hierarchies that create the divides between the Granthams and the staff. All of this is justified. The problem is Fellowes doesn’t seem at all interested in having a servant who is bucking the system with grace, wit, and intelligence. Instead, like in the previous episode when Daisy shoots her mouth off, destroying any chance of Mr. Mason keeping his farm, Daisy wants to have it out with Cora (can you imagine?). It’s unclear whether Mr. Mason will get Yew Tree Farm – and Mary isn’t too keen on giving it to the old man (it would essentially be a charitable move), but she’s outvoted by everyone. Thankfully, before Daisy has a chance to wail off Cora’s head, Robert steps in with some serendipitous timing, letting her know that Mason’s got the farm.

Both Gwen and Daisy are seeming parallels, but neither is depicted in terribly progressive ways. While Daisy’s essentially stupid, Gwen is practically crooked with gratitude. Instead of praising Gwen for her ability to transcend her humble background, the scene devolved into a rumination on how wonderful Sybil really was. And Cora’s kindndess also underscores the idea that Daisy and Gwen – as well as every other housemaid in England – will be fine, as long as they’re polite, mind their manners, keep their place, and rely on the kindness of their employers. None of this is reflective of what is really at the crux of social progress – yes, there were rich folks who had sincere and genuine interest in their subordinates, but the reality is, few of these people would get ahead if they stood by waiting for the benevolence of a rich and fancy lady: these people had to make these opportunities themselves.

All of this noblesse oblige is difficult to stomach at times. Never is that more true than with Mary, who has a rare moment of introspection when confronted with the depth of Sybil’s generosity. Again, only Mary could manage to make a dinner about a former housemaid and her dead sister about her, but she’s particularly gifted at being self-centered. When Anna experiences pregnancy pains (I groaned along with her at yet another “Anna and Bates are miserable” story line), Mary arranges a quick zip to London to her star gynecologist, who saves Anna and the baby. Thankfully, we don’t spend too much time on Anna or Bates.

Finally, Carson and Hughes return from their honeymoon, and the house is all aflutter because now everyone will have to refer to Mrs. Hughes as Mrs. Carson. Which is really hard apparently. This is how fucked up these rich people are – they can’t even wrap their minds around having Mrs. Hughes be called Mrs. Carson. The whole time everyone gathers in the kitchen for the toast, Edith, Mary, Rosamond, and Robert are muttering about how difficult it’ll be. Of course, because any inconvenience, no matter how slight, is too monumental for the Granthams, it’s decided that Mrs. Hughes will still be called Mrs. Hughes. Whew. I was really worried there.

If it seems I’m harsh on the show it’s because a few seasons ago, it was one of the juiciest, intriguing dramas out there. It was a soap opera in the tradition of Dynasty, Dallas, Melrose Place, or Desperate Housewives, but it had the veneer of respectability because the characters wore corsets and hats, and spoke with English accents. But as the show went on, the social politics became strangely reductive – not conservative, exactly, but simple. And many of the characters are flattened out and rendered one-note – this is especially true of Cora, Bates, and Violet (though Maggie Smith covers up all of that with her delicious line reading).

Random thoughts:

  • So, Barrows is gonna be fired, right? Guy can’t catch a break no matter what.
  • Edith dumped her crazy sexist editor and is going to hire an editrix – nice
  • It’s nice to see Branson back in the fold, except, he’s sorta blending into the background – hopefully, Fellowes has more interesting things to do with the guy.
  • Baxter is a kind, loving person with an interesting past – I also like her steady, calming grace – she is what Anna once was.
  • Speaking of Anna, Joanne Froggatt, as usual kills it – it’s not her fault that Fellowes saddled her character with a gloomy Eeyore like Bates.
  • Though Violet is the queen of the one-liners, just like everything else in her life, she’s being threatened in that department, too. Mrs. Patmore had some real doozies: “I wonder if Karl Marx might finish the liver pate” and “Alright, Madame Defarge, calm down and finish that mash.”
  • Isobel, also a great one for one-liners asks a fretful Violet who just made a comment that she hasn’t visited the kitchen in 20 years, “Did you bring your passport?”

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